RPM, Volume 19, Number 24, June 11 to June 17, 2017

Thoughts on Religious Experience

Deathbed of the believer

By Archibald Alexander


We have arrived now at a very solemn part of our subject. The writer feels that it is so to himself, as he knows that he must soon be called to travel the road which leads to the narrow house appointed for all living. If after having gone through this scene, he were permitted to return and finish these papers on Religious Experience, by narrating what the soul suffers in passing the gate of death, and more especially what are its views and feelings the moment after death—he would be able to give information which at present no mortal can communicate.

The thought has often occurred, when thinking on this subject, that the surprise of such a transition as that from time to eternity—from the state of imprisonment in this clay tenement to an unknown state of existence—would be overwhelming even to the pious. But these are shortsighted reflections. We undertake to judge of eternal things by rules only suited to our present state of being and our present feelings. That the scene will be new and sublime, beyond all conception, cannot be doubted; but what our susceptibilities and feelings will be, when separated from the body, we cannot tell.

Is it not possible that our entrance on the unseen world may be preceded by a course of gradual preparation for the wonderful objects which it contains, analogous to our progress through infancy in the present world? That knowledge of future things will be acquired gradually and not instantaneously, we are led to believe from the constitution of the human mind, and from all the analogies of nature. The soul may therefore have to go to school again, to learn the first elements of celestial knowledge; and who will be the instructors, or how long this training may continue, it would be vain to conjecture.

Whether in this gradual progress in the knowledge of heavenly things our reminiscence of the transactions in which we were engaged upon earth will be from the first vivid and perfect, or whether these things will at first be buried in a sort of oblivion, and be brought up to view gradually and successively, who can tell us? But I must withdraw my imagination from a subject to which her powers are entirely inadequate. Though I have been fond of those writings of Thomas Dick, Isaac Taylor, and Isaac Watts, which give free scope to reasonings from analogy in regard to the future condition of the believer; yet I am persuaded that they add nothing to our real knowledge. Their lucubrations resemble the vain efforts of a man born blind to describe to his fellow-sufferers the brilliance of the stars, the splendors of the sun, or the milder beauties of a lovely landscape. While he seems to himself to approach nearest to the object, he is in fact most remote from any just conceptions of it.

This brings to recollection, what has often appeared highly probable in regard to the development of our mental powers, that as in infancy some of our most important faculties, as for example, reason, conscience, and taste, are entirely dormant, and gradually and slowly make their appearance afterwards; so, probably, this whole earthly life is a state of infancy in relation to that which is to come, and there may exist now, in these incomprehensible souls of ours, germs of faculties never in the least developed in this world—but which will spring into activity as soon as the soul feels the penetrating beams of celestial light, and which will be brought to maturity just at the time when they are needed. The capacity of the beatific vision may now be possessed by the soul, deeply enveloped in that darkness which conceals the internal powers of the mind even from itself, except so far as they are manifested by their actual exercise. How shallow then is all our mental philosophy, by which we attempt to explore the depths of the human mind!

But are these conjectural speculations for edification? Do they bring us any nearer to God and to our beloved Redeemer? I cannot say that they do. At the best they are no more than an innocent amusement. In indulging them, we are in great danger of becoming presumptuous, and even foolish, by supposing that we possess knowledge, when in fact our brightest light is but darkness. Vain man would be wise. Let us then cease from man. Let us cease from our own unsubstantial dreams, and lay fast hold of the sure word of prophecy as of a light shining in a dark place. "To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to these, there is no light in them", (Isa 8:20) or as some render the passage, "light shall never rise to them".

One simple declaration of the Word of God is worth more to a soul descending into the valley and shadow of death, than all the ingenious and vivid imaginings of the brightest human minds.

In view of the absolute and undoubted certainty of our departure out of life, it seems very strange that we should be so unconcerned. If even one of a million escaped death, this might afford some shadow of a reason for our carelessness; but we know that "it is appointed unto men once to die". (Heb 9:27) In this warfare there is no discharge, and yet most men live as if they were immortal. I remember the foolish thought which entered my childish mind when my mother informed me that we all must die. I entertained the hope that before my time came, some great change would take place, I knew not how—by which I would escape this dreaded event.

I will not address the death of the wicked at present. The dying experience of the believer is our proper subject, and we read that one object of Christ's coming into the world was "to deliver such as were all their life time subject to bondage through fear of death".

Death, in itself considered, is a most formidable evil, and can be desirable to none. The fear of death is not altogether the consequence of sin; the thing is abhorrent to the constitution of man. Death was held up in terror to our first parents when innocent, to prevent their transgression, and having entered the world by their sin in whom we all sinned, this event has been ever since a terror to mortals—"The King of Terrors!"

Man instinctively cleaves to life; so does every sentient being. There are only two things which can possibly have the effect of reconciling any man to death. The first is the hope of escaping from misery which is felt to be intolerable: the other an assurance of a better, that is, a heavenly country. The Captain of our salvation conquered death and him who had the power of death, that is the Devil—by dying Himself. By this means he plucked from this monster his deadly sting—by satisfying the demands of God's holy law. "For the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law." (1 Cor 15:56) All those, therefore, who are united to Christ meet death as a conquered and disarmed enemy. Against them he is powerless. Still, however, he wears a threatening aspect, and although he cannot kill, he can frown and threaten—and this often frightens the timid sheep. They often do not know that they are delivered from his tyranny, and that now he can do nothing but falsely accuse, and roar like a hungry lion disappointed of his prey. There are still some who all their lifetime are subject to bondage "through fear of death". (Heb 2:15) Their confidence is shaken by so many distressing doubts, that though sincerely engaged in the service of God, they can never think of death without sensible dread; and often they are afraid that when the last conflict shall come, they will be so overwhelmed with terror and despair, that they shall prove a dishonor to their Christian profession.

I recollect a sickly but pious lady who, with a profusion of tears, expressed her anxiety and fear in the view of her approaching end. There seemed to be ground for her foreboding apprehensions because, from the beginning of her profession, she had enjoyed no comfortable assurance—but was of the number of those who, though they "fear God, and obey the voice of his servant, yet walk in darkness and have no light" (Isa 50:10) of comfort. But mark the goodness of God and the fidelity of the Great Shepherd. Some months afterwards I saw this lady on her deathbed—and was astonished to find that Christ had delivered her entirely from her bondage. She was now near to her end and knew it—but she shed no tears now but those of joy and gratitude. All her darkness and sorrow were gone. Her heart glowed with love to the Redeemer, and all her anxiety now was to depart and be with Jesus. There was, as it were, a beaming of heaven in her countenance. I had before tried to comfort her—but now I sat down by her bedside to listen to the gracious words which proceeded from her mouth, and could not but send up the fervent aspiration, "O let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like hers!" (Num 23:10) Then I knew that there was one who had conquered death, and him who has the power of death; for Satan, to the last moment, was not permitted to molest her.

No arguments have ever so powerfully operated on my mind, to convince me of the reality and power of experimental religion, as witnessing the last exercises of some of God's children. Some of these scenes, though long past, have left an indelible impression on my memory; and I hope a beneficial impression on my heart.

Another lady I had often observed passing along her way—humble, gentle, silent—evidently not seeking to be conspicuous, but rather to remain unnoticed and unknown. She had a few chosen female friends with whom she freely communicated, for her heart was affectionate and her disposition sociable. To these she poured out her inmost soul and received from them a similar return. She was crushed under an habitual feeling of domestic affliction—but not of that kind which freely utters its complaints and engages the sympathy of many. Her sorrows were such as her delicacy of feeling did not permit her even to allude to. The conduct of an imprudent father weighed heavily on her spirits—but towards him—and her mother being dead, she kept his house—she was assiduously respectful; and while he made himself the laughing stock of his acquaintances, she endeavored to make his home comfortable. But often I thought that her lively sensibility to the ridicule and reproaches which fell upon him would be an injury to her delicate constitution; and the more so, because this was a subject on which she would not converse—not even with the intimate, confidential friends before mentioned. It was evident that her health was slowly giving way, and that the disease which carries off nearly one half of the adults in this land was secretly consuming her vitals. But she never complained, and seemed rather to become more cheerful as her eye became more brilliant and her cheeks more ashen. She was, for a long time after this, seen occupying her humble retired place in the house of God, and still went her accustomed rounds among her poor and sick neighbors, while doing everything to render home comfortable to her restless, unhappy parent. At length, however, her strength failed, and she was obliged to confine herself to the house, and before long to her bed. Being informed of this, as her pastor, I visited her.

Hitherto her extreme modesty and retired habits had prevented me from having much personal acquaintance with this excellent woman. I was accompanied to the house by one of her intimate friends. The house was a cottage, and all its furniture of home manufacture; but upon the whole there was impressed a neatness and order, which indicated a superior taste in her who had long had the sole management. I did not know but that from her habitual reserve and silence she would be embarrassed in her feelings and reserved in her communications—but I was happily disappointed. She received me with an affectionate smile and a cordial shake of the hand, and said that she was pleased that I had thought it worth my while to come and see a poor dying woman. Not many minutes were spent in compliments or general remarks; she entered freely and most intelligently into a narrative of her religious exercises which had commenced at an early period of her life, and expatiated in the sweetest manner on the divine excellencies of the Savior, not as one who was speaking what she had learned from others, or from the mere exertion of her own intellect—but as one who felt in the heart every word which she uttered. There was a gentleness, a suavity, and a meek humility expressed in every tone of her voice, and the same was depicted on every lineament of her countenance. Though, when in health, she was never reckoned beautiful, yet there was now in her countenance, animated with hope and love and pious joy—or rather peace—a beauty of countenance which I never saw equaled. It was what may without impropriety be called spiritual beauty. I found what I had not known before, that her mind had been highly cultivated by reading. This was manifest in the propriety, and indeed I may say, elegance of her language. Not that she aimed at saying fine things. Such an idea never entered her humble mind; but possessing, naturally, a good understanding which she had carefully improved by reading, especially the best Christian authors, and being now animated with a flow of pious affection which seemed never to ebb, all these things gave her language a fluency, a glow, and a vividness, which was truly remarkable. I have often regretted that I did not put down at the time her most striking expressions—but the mere words could convey no more than the shadow of such a scene.

It has often been remarked that the speeches of great orators, when written and read, have scarcely a resemblance to the same speeches delivered with all the pathos, the grace, and the varied intonations and gestures of the orator. The same may more truly be said of the sayings of the dying Christian; we may catch the very words—but the spirit, the sacred and solemn tones, free from all affectation, the heavenly serenity of countenance, and the countless methods of manifesting the pious affections of the heart, never can be preserved, nor distinctly conveyed by words to others. The mind of this young lady possessed a uniform serenity, undisturbed with fears, doubts, or cares. Everything seemed right to her submissive temper. It was enough that her heavenly Father appointed it to be so. For many weeks she lay in this state of perfect tranquility, as it were in the suburbs of heaven, and I believe no one ever heard a complaint from her lips. Even that grief which had preyed on her health, when she was able to go about, had now ceased to cause her pain. Hers was, in my apprehension, the nearest approximation to complete happiness which I ever saw upon earth; yet there was no violence of feeling, no agitation, no rapture. It was that kind of happiness which, from its gentleness and calmness, is capable of continuance.

As it was her request that I should visit her often, I did so as frequently as the distance of my residence and my other avocations would permit; not, as I often said, with any expectation of communicating any good to her—but of receiving spiritual benefit from her heavenly conversation. O! how often did I wish that the boldest infidels—and they were rampant at that time—could have been introduced into the chamber of this dying saint. Often, especially after witnessing this scene, I endeavored to describe to such as attended preaching, the power of true religion to sustain the soul in the last earthly conflict; but they were incredulous as to the facts, or ascribed them to some strange enthusiasm which buoyed up the soul in an unusual manner. But here there was no enthusiasm—nothing approaching to what may be called a heated imagination. All was sober—all was serene—all was gentle—all was rational. And, although forty-five years have passed since this scene was witnessed, the impression on my mind is distinct and vivid. The indescribable countenance, calm but animated, pale with disease but lighted up with an unearthly smile; the sweet and affectionate tones of voice; the patient, submissive, cheerful, grateful temper—are all remembered with a vividness and permanence with which I remember nothing of recent occurrence. When I think of such scenes, I have often thought and said, "If this be delusion, then let my soul forever remain under such delusion!"

If the foregoing was a sample of the deathbed exercises of all Christians, then would I say that their last days are their best days, and the day of death happier than the day of birth. This, however, is far from being a true view of the general fact. It is a select case—one of a thousand—upon the whole the happiest death I ever witnessed.

I have, indeed, seen dying people agitated with a kind of delirious rapture, in which the imagination has been so excited, that the person looked and spoke as if the objects of another world were actually present to the view. In such case the nervous system loses its tone, and when the general feelings are pious and the thoughts directed heavenward, the whole system is thrilled with an indescribable emotion. We have a number of recorded death-scenes which partake of this character, and are greatly admired and extolled by the injudicious and fanatical. Scenes of this kind are frequently the effect of disease, and sometimes of medicine operating on the idiosyncrasy of particular people. Such people may be pious—but the extraordinary exhilaration and ecstasy of which they are the subjects ought not to be ascribed to supernatural influence—but to physical causes. Between such experiences and the case described above, there is no more resemblance than between a blazing meteor which soon burns itself out, and the steady, warming beams of the spring sun.

I once witnessed an extraordinary scene of this kind in a sceptic, who neglected religion and scoffed at its professors until very near the close of life. He then seemed to be agitated and exhilarated with religious ideas and feelings, leading him to profess his faith in Christ, and to rejoice and exult in the assurance of salvation—and all this without any previous conviction of sin, and unmingled at the time with deep penitential feelings. Well, why might it not have been an instance of sovereign grace, like that of the thief on the cross? It is possible.

As in life, that piety which is founded on knowledge, and in which the faculties of the mind continue to be well balanced and the judgment sound, is by far the least suspicious; so those deathbed exercises, which are of a similar character, are much to be preferred to those which are flighty, and in which reason seems to regulate the helm no longer; but an excited and irregular imagination assumes the government of the man. According to this rule, some glowing narratives of death-scenes will be set aside, as, if not spurious—yet not deserving to be admired and celebrated as they often are.

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